The Tuesday Muse – The Classroom.

(It’s only Wednesday and computer access has been sparse so I’m still Tuesday-Musing! Anyway..)

When delving into a book entitled ‘Introductions To Shakespeare’ (a collection written by lots of well-known people, nearly all (if  not all) who have acted in a play or two by said playwright), I came across this marvellous piece by Ralph Richardson written in 1957 and talking about ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ :

“My own first meeting with ‘The Dream’ was when I studied it with my schoolmaster in the manner prescribed for the examination. Everything about the play was anatomised – the internal and external evidence, the strong and weak endings, the sources of the plot – a dry-as-bones examination with never one word to let in the idea that the work had been written first and foremost as a work of entertainment, of delight and laughter. All that was a strict taboo, something quite unheard of, but as far as I was concerned, this attempted desecration was completely unsuccessful.”

Now despite talking about Shakespeare and all that, what he has said does rather relate to everything else I’ve ever been taught. What is the point in learning something if you don’t know how to use it? Or if you’re never taught the practical uses? Would people not be more inclined to learn things if they knew how they related to their own lives? Added to that, it would be so much more interactive and engaging. I would prefer to be taught a great lot of stuff, then see what I know after, not be made to learn a huge amount of things that I don’t care about by the ‘syllabus’ says we need it for the exam (which will be out of date pretty soon anyway). What’s the point in exams if nothing is really learnt in the process? Things are learnt for examination, not for life – which is a huge shame – and what is the point in learning things if they are not going to be for life?

Going back to the original quote, Shakespeare is a playwright. His work is intended to be performed and observed, not studied with a fine comb in a classroom. Why not run English and Drama together?

“Divorced from regular physical performances his plays would die – or at best be translated into something quite different from their basic nature.” (John Clements, 1971)

‘Hedda Gabler’ Theatre Royal, Bath, March 2010.

All hail the power of the Pike, she MADE this show.

It was pretty standard Henrik Ibsen stuff: domesticity, depression, suicide, loveless marriages, restricted females, boredom of life, it just screams social realism really, but the performance really brought the words to life. Literally, obviously. And, pleasantly, it built up gradually in excitement and action – thus meaning when it came to the second half, it wasn’t just a tying-up of ends and that’s that – things actually happened. And I was completely fresh to this particular play, and I understood it (not that it’s a rocket science, but I get complete lost in Shakespeare. COMPLETELY), which either means my intelligence is on the up or the direction was wonderful. Hopefully both. Also, I am somewhat notorious of falling asleep during the first half of a play – maybe the playwright’s words just aren’t interesting enough – but I was wide awake throughout the whole thing. Marvellous.

Our contact at the Theatre Royal had obtained us high-end seats (stalls-a-go-go!), which meant we could enjoy comfortable viewing with near-perfect visibility of the stage. Good work Tris 🙂

My first impression when the curtain rose was a mild disappointment in the set. The ideas behind it became more apparent as the play progressed, but it wasn’t made to look like a room that had been lived in, and fair enough the characters living here had just moved in and it was a reception room (therefore not going to be filled with copious amounts of informal objects), but it was sparsely populated with furniture and there was a main wall at the back drowned in red light (I felt this represented Hedda’s passion and anger rather well), and forward of that there was a white wall (which I felt representative of the bleakness and blandness of what Hedda actually received from life, and that it was restricting her real self which had to hide in the shadows). However, the technical crew had completely failed to drop a black curtain behind the red wall, thus meaning the mechanical workings of the theatre were exposed (only minutely but I knew what I was looking for!). Slight breakdown in Suspension of Disbelief but I think I may have been the only one who noticed anyway.

The costumes were visually stunning, especially Hedda’s, but they were not consistent with each other. The dresses of Aunt Juliana and Mrs Elvsted were roughly 1880s, whereas Hedda’s seemed to blend features of very early and very late 19th century fashion. They seemed to have all the simpleness of the empire-waisted dresses of the early 1800s, but without the actual empire line. In short, I’m not entirely sure if they were historically accurate at all, but they were lovely to look at. Where the men were concerned, it’s hard to go vastly wrong as suits are always in fashion, but Loevborg’s trousers were of an unusual choice – had they been any slimmer they could have passed for the very odd modern fashion of men wearing women’s trousers. Even Ibsen could not have predicted that.

Now. The lighting and sound. These were both excellent elements of the technical side – the sound desk was well on time when the “curtains” were opened offstage, and the lighting desk coordinated itself wonderfully well at this point by raising the lights for daylight on that side of the stage. They also infused red lights well with scenes that were more heated than others, increasing the feelings the audience received from the scene and adding to the ambience. The wood burner on the other side of the stage was an excellent touch too, an orange light glowing from it when the door was open, with the crackling sound of burning wood and the smoke to add to it. I was rather impressed with the sound and lighting.

Moving on to the acting. Obviously a major part. Unfortunately, the first character on was ‘Aunt JuJu’, and Aunt JuJu wasn’t very convincing at all. She was probably the weakest member of the cast, but on the plus side, this enhanced other performances and Aunt JuJu didn’t have the biggest role either. The actress stumbled her lines twice in the first scene, which surely is not a particularly professional thing to do. Bertha, the maid, was good however, and the scene progressed well from there. I always think a good support cast is essential. Tesman was marvellous: well in tune with his character, convincing, excellent voice projection – he had it all really. The same could be said of The Judge, who had an excellent character to play, but alas not of Loevborg. The latter had a particularly strong scene at the end of the first half with Hedda, but that was the only time I found he really shone. Mrs Elvsted I found portrayed in a rather irritating way – the actress seemed unable to enunciate well enough for the stage and she was so dramatic it was hard to take her seriously, but Hedda Gabler – wow. The actress literally sunk into her role, it might as well have been written for her. Her stage presence was unbelievable – I’m sure there are some who would say she “owned the stage”, although I find this an odd saying, but she was excellent, and a brilliant heroine. My favourite scene came at the start of the second half, which finished with Hedda stating “I’m burning your child” to an absent Mrs Elvsted, and I believe the audience were particularly caught up in this scene too, from their reaction at curtain down. I was feeling rather tense that the burning of the manuscript might go wrong, but all was well and it ran smoothly. The fact that Rosamund Pike played the piano on stage too was very good, it made the character that much more believable, made use of the talents of the actress and made the set come to life with the interaction of it – the piano was not a prop anymore, she was living there.

Last but not least, how was our audience? Alas for sitting downstairs, we were surrounded by the slightly more refined populus of Bath (ie. the older ones), some of whom brought along their hearing aids, and one in particular of whom wasn’t aware that theirs were screaming its head off for the first half. Also, however stealthy people think themselves to be, you can never hide the rustle of sweet wrappers, and I’m beginning to think these should be banned in the theatre. But aside from that, they were an appreciative bunch, laughed in all the right places, and it was a very full theatre. Impressive considering it was a Monday night and in the second week of its performance.

In essence, it was a wonderful performance, but the production fell down slightly with the costumes and set. Given the calibre of the show as a whole though, this was not as huge an issue as it could have been, and generally this version of ‘Hedda Gabler’ is definitely a credit to the theatre.

Aunt Juliana Tesman – Anna Carteret

Bertha – Janet Whiteside

Tesman – Robert Glenister

Hedda – Rosamund Pike

Mrs Elvsted – Zoe Waites

Judge Brack – Tim McInnerny

Loevborg – Colin Tierney

Like dancing? Watch this!

Now this is REAL dancing. I am so fed up of the incessant barrage of television programmes with titles like ‘So You Think You Can Dance?’, ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ (which is, disgustingly, so frequently abbreviated to ‘Strictly’.  *vomits*), ‘Got To Dance’, and so on and so forth, and the level of dancing in it is usually just so appalling, it makes you wonder who is actually watching these things and thinking “Ooh.. nice. I wish I could do that.” Clearly, no actual dancer watches them because they are so technically awfully, and innovatively boring, and no self-respecting artist of the dance world would really like such a thing. It is aimed at people who cannot dance (hence rendering the universally asking question ‘So You Think You Can Dance?’ obviously pointless), and who will never dance. This programme is also not about dancing itself, which covers a HUGE range of activities, including, obviously, the dancing, musicality, costuming, choreographing, setting… etc etc., only one of which is actually achieved by the so-called ‘talent’ on this show. Also, what the fuck is Louise Redknapp doing on the panel? She knows literally nothing about dance. And says THE most retarded things on it. But the more she’s on this, the less I have to watch her on the Thomas Cook adverts. You know, the ones where she and her husband ‘Sicknote’ brag about how fabulous their holidays are, and the cherished memories from it. I can’t even afford food for crying out loud.

Anyway, for your education and entertainment, here is some actual dancing. Before it was a fashion craze in pop-culture, and when it was still an art.

HOW does he do this? He is dancing with a partner, and yet there is only him in the room. Absolute genius. This is innovative.

I’m aware most don’t like ballet so this is only a short piece… And I know he’s a bit of a ponce, but look at him go! Nureyev’s the sort of chap you feel a little insecure for, that he’ll not keep the performance going, or he’s going to mess something up, but you don’t really because, well, it’s Nureyev.

It’s a little clichĂ© and long, and starts off a little dull, but look. At the. Precision.

So. This is good dancing. All dance shows on television feature less good dancing. And don’t you forget it.

‘Our Country’s Good’, WCS, Feb 2010.

Think yourselves privileged actors, I had to create a whole new category for you darlings.

A quaint building that looked like a cross between a village hall and a barn hosted Wells Cathedral School’s production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s epic ‘Our Country’s Good’. I feel this may have worked in their favour though, as the director had chosen something of a “very simplistic” set, picking out only the sails and tents, and using removable blocks for seats and so on, which were placed and re-placed by the rather competent stage crew (a most unusual feature). Wertenbaker is a little infuriating in that she does seem to end every scene with her characters still on stage, meaning you will always see the actors going offstage if the theatre isn’t dimmed quite enough, like in this case, thus meaning one can lose the suspension of disbelief that has been built up throughout the scene, but I feel this is more the fault of the playwright and the restrictions of the theatre space in which the cast and crew had to work, rather than the fault of the latter. Ritchie Hall was also a little chilly and one did need a stretch of the legs at half time after being exposed to the seats for so long, but these were only minor ailments. One must make sacrifices for Am-Drams.

It now strikes me as unusual that this play is a set text for A Level, as the themes involved are quite intense and need a fair degree of understanding to perform them accurately, but the programme ensured me that the cast has done copious amounts of background reading and studying of the text in preparation for an equally intense performance. Generally, I found a small divide between the officers and the convicts – as the convicts had been written with more personality, they are easier to act and you can put far more character into them than if you were playing an officer. Possibly another fail by Wertenbaker?

Having said that, it IS a good play! The first half starts with a rather brutal scene of a convict being whipped by a sadistic officer – an eye-opening vision – after which the officers line up and deemed “all present and correct” by Major Robbie Ross. The latter part here was a devious add-in by the director, who felt the word “cunt” unsuitable for a school play, thus exchanged part of the dialogue with character introduction. However I think it worked well, as so many characters in a play can occasionally be a little overwhelming for an audience freshly exposed to a new play with such content. There is a highly frustrating device used by Wertenbaker, who chose to have an Aborigine narrate the play. So he pops up every now and again to state some poetic rubbish about what’s going on, and doesn’t really fulfill his proper purpose as no one really knows what he’s actually talking about. Not a bad portrayal by the actor though, but I never can decide whether it would be more accurate to play him with an accent, or whether this would be deemed racist. I think today’s society would be prone to choose the latter. Fail. ‘Punishment’, one of my favourite scenes of Act One, was executed very well, and the cast managed to hold onto the fact that every line is significant. I’m always amused by the irony in this scene that the officers are waltzing around, shooting birds at their own leisure, and discussing the idea of punishment for their convicts and whether it’s a morally good idea and what it’ll prove. Scene Four, where we first scene the innocence nature of Ralph Clark and the somewhat unstable nature of Harry Brewer come through, created a good rapport between the two characters by the actors, but I felt their timing could have been better on some of the lines, and Harry could perhaps have been less formal, more out-spoken towards his comrade. This would have given greater effect to his character, but like I have said, the officers were rather hard to play. Unless you were one of the evil pair of Major Robbie Ross and  Captain Jemmy Campbell. These two were, literally, bastards. Ironically, they were played by two of the most jovial and friendly people I know, but their acting skills did somewhat take over and I had a hard time talking to them afterwards. ‘The Authorities Discuss The Merits Of The Theatre’ is, aside from the beginning, the first scene we see all the officers together, and various characters did come out pleasantly strongly here. Other actors need to pick up on the idea that just because you are not speaking does not mean you are not acting, but it was well executed in general. Captain Jemmy Campbell oddly, considering his sadistic nature, provided the comic relief in the scene, which was juxtaposed by the intense anger from Major Robbie Ross. The blocking of the scene could perhaps have been revised slightly more, as there were times when, looking at the stage face-on, some characters were completely blocked by others – something of a social faux pas in the theatre – and not all characters moved so this problem didn’t always stop being a problem, but aside from that, well done. An endearing connection between Harry and Duckling was created by the actors plying them – a necessity considering Harry’s fate – and the characters of Dabby Bryant and Liz Morden were both played strongly. There was an odd choice from the director, who decided to make her Hangman (Ketch) a Hangwoman, which I rather feel would be somewhat inaccurate given the context. Frequently in school productions there aren’t enough men for all the male roles, but you can dress a woman up to be a man any day, which was done with about four of the officers, so why change the entire character to something rather unbelievable? It was still played well, but didn’t work in the context of the play. The First Act ends with the First Rehearsal, in which we see again the character of Sideway, who can come to life a little more now, and was done so quite magnificently by the actor. He created much comedy for the audience, which is essential in a play with such subject material, and it was an excellent end to the first half.

The actors developed their characters well in the second half, leading to a somewhat poignant scene of Harry’s death and Duckling actually saying how much he means to her, and to Ralph and Mary engaging in ‘A Love Scene’, which does rather make all that Ralph has said about his wife back in England a little pointless, but if the actors create enough chemistry between the characters then it can be a believable event. This round left things a little to be desired, mainly because I felt stronger actors were used for stronger parts, and the actors playing Mary and Ralph could have accentuated the personalities a little more. Irritatingly the Aborigine makes more appearances. Not that this is the cast’s fault. There was a technical fail on the last scene when the lights were brought down before they should have been: that coupled with the fact that the actor playing Wisehammer, who finishes the play, was a little too “Rada” to be portraying a convict, and Beethoven’s Fifth was not used for final music (as stated in the text), led to a slightly weak ending – a shame, considering the rest had been so good! It was a convincing performance, and not half bad for a school one. Well played actors.


Captain Arthur Phillip – Ben Gibb

Major Robbie Ross – Ed Barr-Sim

Captain David Collins – Amy Harding

Captain Watkin Tench – Maddy Herbert

Captain Jemmy Campbell – Tom Bench

Reverend Johnson – Louis Heriz-Smith

Lieutenant George Johnston – Hattie Seaton

2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark – William Offer

2nd Lieutenant Will Faddy Ebs Barr-Sim

Midshipman Harry Brewer – Hamish Cranford-Smith

An Aboriginal Australian – Felix Nicholson

John Arscott – Will Dalby

Ketch Freeman – Emma Murton

Robert Sideway – Alex Masters

John Wisehammer – Alessandro Tortini-Rostrapovitch

Mary Brenham – Polly Baker

Dabby Bryant – Megan Henson

Liz Morden – Jess Dowdeswell

Duckling Smith – Ann Macleod

Meg Long – Verity Wingate